On July 29, taking cognisance of the indifferent West Bengal state machinery, the Joint Forum of tea unions convened a meeting and decided to send a memorandum to all the appropriate authorities of the government – from district to national level – and Planters’ Association (employer’s bodies) on August 1. The tea plantation workers will also observe a “united peaceful rally” on the same day to press for their long-standing demands.
Their grievances include non-enforcement of minimum wages, non-implementation of food security act and absence of a provision of land patta to landless tea garden residents among other things.
The Joint Forum, a platform of about 29 tea workers’ union from different political affiliations – other than the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) – has also decided to seek the intervention of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee by submitting them the memorandum, enumerating the social issues faced by the tea workers.
Minimum wages for the labour of tea workers in West Bengal remains a pipe dream despite five years of solidarity movement, 14 tripartite meetings with the state government and numerous strikes and lockouts.
Also read:Tea Workers’ Strike: Trouble Brewing for the Government of West Bengal
With intervention of trade unions, the tea industry in Bengal has over the years recorded myriads of conflicts between the tea plantation workers and the employers.
However, it was in February 2015 that a tripartite agreement was signed, for the first time in the history of more than 150 years of tea industry in Bengal, with the Mamata Government to implement minimum wages. A Wage Advisory Committee was created to review the minimum wages, which in August 2018 proposed Rs. 172 per day as a minimum wage, which also included compensation for procuring food grains. The Joint Forum, however, made a counter proposal of Rs. 239 per day.
The main contention of the Joint Forum was the non-consideration of ‘fringe benefits’ such as clothing, housing, medical facilities and other such necessities in the proposed wages by the advisory committee. According to various constituents of the Joint Forum, the wages also failed to realize the monetised value of education, health and old age provisions, a basic demand for the sustenance of the tea plantation labourers.
NewsClick spoke to Ziaul Alam, general secretary of the Cha Bagicha Shramik Union (Tea Plantations Workers’ Union, one of the constituents of the Joint Forum), who shared his anger over the state government inaction over the issue of minimum wages.
“The state government, in the 14th tripartite meeting in December 2018, had accepted our demand to consider various other benefits in deciding the minimum wages of the tea workers,” said Alam, adding, “however, it has failed to act on those deliberations.”
“Mere assurances were provided to us and as we know, assurances don’t solve problems,” he added.
Several ‘token’ strikes were held over the non-implementation of the Minimum Wages Act by the agitating members of the Joint Forum. However, such ‘token’ strikes can cause massive repercussions for the tea industry as a whole, caused by the loss of a working day. As most labourers in the tea gardens are tribals and immigrants, the consequences of a strike are felt in much worse manner by the workers themselves.
Speaking with NewsClick, Abhijit Mazumdar, working president of the Terai Sangrami Cha Shramik Union (also one of the constituents of the Joint Forum), said that the dismal condition of the tea plantation workers in Bengal is reaching a new low every day.
The four major demands also include the demand for 60 years to be declared as the age of retirement and a provision for household land to landless tea workers that will alleviate the situation as it will directly address the social issues faced by the tea labourers, added Mazumdar.
Also read: Tea Garden Workers Break the Jinx of Identity and Communal Politics